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Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

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Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

4.5/5 (8 ratings)
657 pages
5 hours
Sep 6, 2016


Winner, James Beard Award for Best Book of the Year, International (2017)
Winner, IACP Award for Best Cookbook of the Year in Culinary Travel (2017)

Named a Best Cookbook of the Year by The Boston Globe, Food & Wine, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal

“A reason to celebrate . . . a fascinating culinary excursion.” —The New York Times

Though the countries in the Persian culinary region are home to diverse religions, cultures, languages, and politics, they are linked by beguiling food traditions and a love for the fresh and the tart. Color and spark come from ripe red pomegranates, golden saffron threads, and the fresh herbs served at every meal. Grilled kebabs, barbari breads, pilafs, and brightly colored condiments are everyday fare, as are rich soup-stews called ash and alluring sweets like rose water pudding and date-nut halvah.

Our ambassador to this tasty world is the incomparable Naomi Duguid, who for more than 20 years has been bringing us exceptional recipes and mesmerizing tales from regions seemingly beyond our reach. More than 125 recipes, framed with stories and photographs of people and places, introduce us to a culinary paradise where ancient legends and ruins rub shoulders with new beginnings—where a wealth of history and culinary traditions makes it a compelling place to read about for cooks and travelers and for anyone hankering to experience the food of a wider world.
Sep 6, 2016

About the author

Naomi Duguid is a writer, photographer, teacher, cook, and world traveler. Her most recent cookbook, Burma, brought news of a long-forgotten part of the world and was winner of the 2013 IACP Cookbook Award for Culinary Travel and the Taste Canada Food Writing Award. Her previous award-winning titles, co-authored with Jeffrey Alford, include Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas, their first book, which won a James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year; Seductions of Rice; Hot Sour Salty Sweet, also a James Beard Cookbook of the Year; Mangoes & Curry Leaves; and Beyond the Great Wall. Duguid’s articles and photographs appear regularly in Lucky Peach, Food & Wine, and other publications. She is a frequent guest speaker and presenter at food conferences. She is the host of Toronto’s Food on Film series and has a strong online presence (Twitter and Facebook). Her stock photo agency, Asia Access, is based in Toronto, where she lives when she is not on the road.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • The connections between them are found not in their different places of worship, nor in their many distinctive languages and alphabets, but in the kitchen, in the garden, and at the table.

  • On the tray were large pieces of barbari bread hot from the oven, as well as fresh cheese, honey, a pot of tea, a tea glass, and a bowl of sugar cubes. I ate all the bread and cheese and drank all the tea.And then I went looking for the bakery.

  • This rice sets the standard for rice cookery from Azerbaijan to northern India. It is tender and moist, every grain separate and perfect, with a crust at the bottom of the pot that is crisp and flavorful. The Persian word for that crust is tahdig.

  • It’s a country of about eighty million people living in a territory about half the size of India. At the moment, the country is a theocracy, ruled by the head of the Twelver sect of Shia Islam, as well as by an elected parliament.

  • Until I went to Azerbaijan, I had never eaten, or even seen, turkey kebabs. They’re a big thing in Azerbaijan. Now that I’ve made them at home for friends, we all agree that it’s our favorite way to eat turkey.

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Taste of Persia - Naomi Duguid

Taste of


A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

Naomi Duguid

New York

Lahich, Azerbaijan—Fresh and dried barberries at a village shop.



A New Era

Cuisines Without Borders

Flavors and Condiments

Salads and Vegetables

Soup Paradise

Stuffed Vegetables and Dumplings


Grilled Meat and Poultry

Stovetop Meat and Poultry

Rice and other Grains

Flatbread Heartland

A Taste for Sweet

A Wealth of Fruit

A Closer Look

Travel Notes


Annotated Bibliography



Conversion Charts

About the Author

Halabja, Kurdistan—Pouring tea at home, for guests.

Tabriz, Iran—A popular local eatery.


On the wall of my office, I have a map that shows the Persian Empire under Darius the Great, who died in 486 BC. He ruled an empire first established by Cyrus the Great, the largest the world had ever known. Persia (present-day Iran) lay at the heart of the empire, which stretched as far west as Greece and, to the east, all the way to India.

When I first imagined this book, my idea was to write about the people and food of the Persian culinary region that centers on Iran but includes peoples in the immediate neighborhood: in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kurdistan. The region extends from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the southern tip of Iran, and lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

The people here speak many different languages and follow many different religions. At the same time, they share a history, and they are all marked by Persian influences that date back to the time of Cyrus and Darius and continue in the modern era. The connections between them are found not in their different places of worship, nor in their many distinctive languages and alphabets, but in the kitchen, in the garden, and at the table.

I want to take you there to engage with the intensities of Georgian dishes; with the creative and subtle culinary traditions of Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan; and with the remarkable home cooking of the people of Kurdistan. The food is enticing, and the recipes are very friendly to the home cook. Flavors, textures, and ingredients will be familiar to anyone from a European or North American tradition. And that shouldn’t be surprising, for Persian ingredients and culinary wisdom have influenced cuisines from India to Morocco to northern Europe.

Common elements in the cuisines of Persia and her neighbors in the Caucasus and Kurdistan include richly flavored bean dishes, flatbreads of many kinds, generous use of herbs and greens, plenty of cheese and yogurt, walnuts (used in sauces, marinades, and vegetarian pâtés), inventive soups and stews, savory dishes flavored with pomegranate and/or other fruits, and (for all but the Georgians) rice as a beloved staple. Common to all the peoples of the region is a culture of hospitality, of sharing food and drink with both friends and strangers, with generosity.

As you read through the recipes and stories, the maps here and here will help familiarize you with place-names and the geographical connections in the region. At the back of the book, there’s more detailed information about each country (see A Closer Look), as well as Travel Notes (see here), for those who want to explore the food and culture of the region firsthand. The Annotated Bibliography (see here) provides a list of books and other sources that I’ve found interesting and inspiring, from cookbooks to novels, movies, and websites. And, finally, if you come across an unfamiliar ingredient, term, or name, the Glossary (see here) will be of help.

Clockwise from above left:

North of Yerevan, Armenia—Tsayhlik with her daughters and grandchildren outside their home near Mount Aragats (see Armenian Puff Pastry Cake);

Massouleh, northern Iran—a village baker with his tandoor oven (he works with incredible speed making lavash each morning);

near Shiraz, Iran—Khameh girls in the mountains (see Nomad Encounter);

Tbilisi, Georgia—a woman selling chicken at Deserteri Market;

Baku, Azerbaijan—a woman carrying a live turkey at the big Taza Market.

Persepolis, Iran—A carved procession of people bears offerings to the emperor in one of the most beautiful parts of the ruins in this ancient Persian capital.

A New Era

As it rejoins the community of nations, Iran is at last becoming more open to travelers from the West. Once they go, they will want to keep going back. There’s so much to explore and delight in.

People in Iran are pleased with this opening up. They are familiar with Western culture through films, the Internet, and social media, but they want direct contact and a free flow of people and ideas in both directions. Although many Iranians are not pleased with the rule of the ayatollahs, they’re proud of their country and their heritage: the glorious architecture of Isfahan, the lively streets of Tehran and Shiraz, their food, their films, their novels, their music, and much more.

The Caucasus countries are also now much more inviting to travelers, and they’re easier to get to than they have been for a century. After decades of rule by the USSR, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have come out of that gray period and into full bloom. Travelers are discovering the region’s spectacular landscapes—the snowy Caucasus Mountains, the coasts of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, the fertile valleys—and the wine, food, and generous hospitality of the people. The cities feel very European, from the buildings to the way people dress. Even in Soviet times, the food markets in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were a break from the harshness of that era, the vendors lively and the fruits and vegetables glowing with color and ripeness. But now, as each of the Caucasus countries defines itself independently, there’s a pride and confidence, and a sparkle in the air.

Nearby Kurdistan, the beautiful, hilly part of Iraq that lies along the Iranian border, is not Arab but Kurdish in language and culture. When I was in Kurdistan, the people I talked to were confident about the future, hoping that the underground oil wealth there would bring more prosperity to many people. But since then, the Kurds have had to repel the advance of ISIL and deal with thousands of refugees.

We don’t know how things will evolve, but in the meantime, I am especially happy to be able to include stories, photographs, and recipes from Kurdistan in this book—while wishing for better and easier days to come. I hope that you will come to feel a connection with the people there too.

Left: A young Armenian girl at home outside Yerevan.

Right: Kurdish men seated by the road on the way to Dohuk, Kurdistan.

The Caucasus Mountains, tall and snow-covered, and running roughly west to east, separate Russia from Georgia and Azerbaijan, which lie below the mountain wall. To the west is Georgia, with a coast on the Black Sea; to the east is Azerbaijan, with a long coast on the Caspian Sea. Tucked below those two countries is Armenia, a small landlocked nation on a high plateau veined with the occasional river valley.

South of the three Caucasus countries and the Caspian Sea lies the large mass of Iran, and next to it, along its western border, is Kurdistan, an autonomous part of Iraq. Iran’s north coast on the Caspian is humid and lush, but the rest of the country has a dry climate, with very hot summers and cold winters.

Cuisines Without Borders

Persian foodways have had a huge impact on the rest of the world. The legacy of the Persian Empire includes apricots and bitter oranges, underground waterways and irrigation, ice cream, the pulao family of rice dishes, and the use of tart fruits in savory dishes. And winemaking seems to have originated about eight thousand years ago in what is present-day Georgia or Armenia, or perhaps simultaneously in a number of places in the Caucasus.

The mosaic of people in the region reflects history, geography, and culture. When Persian rulers conquered neighboring lands, they brought Persian culture with them, but they also learned from the conquered. They forcibly moved neighboring populations (Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and others) into Persia. Over the centuries, borders have been redrawn many times, right up to the present day.

Consequently, the current borders of Iran, Kurdistan, and the Caucasus countries enclose many different peoples in a kind of dizzying, overlapping patchwork. In Iran, there are Armenians, people of Georgian ancestry, Kurds, Azeris, and Assyrians, among others. Until the breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s, there were large communities of Armenians in Azerbaijan and of Azeris in Armenia. Georgia was long home to many Armenians, and it still has large Azeri and Armenian populations. Kurdistan’s population includes not only Kurds, who are the majority, but also many Assyrians and Yazidis. And there are Kurds and Yazidis living in Georgia and Armenia.

How do people in the region define themselves? They most often identify first as citizens of a particular country (though they may instead start with their native language or ethnicity). Then they mention language and religion. Even when kingdoms and conquerors have vanished into the mists of time, traces of their cultures often remain. Nothing is pure—no people or country in the region can claim to be the one origin of a dish or a technique. Too much has happened over the centuries, in the way of mixing cultures and peoples, for any such claim to have credibility.

I’m mentioning this because people in the region have a fierce sense of national pride. In the food sphere, this often translates into gastro-nationalism—assertions that we invented the dish that you claim is yours. But the fact that I came upon a particular dish in Armenia or Iran, Georgia, or Azerbaijan does not mean that the dish belongs to the people of that nation, or that its roots lie solely there.

Shared elements in the region’s culinary cultures include walnuts, pomegranates, and other tart fruits, all used in many savory dishes as flavorings, and sometimes as a main ingredient. Throughout the region, fruits of many kinds are dried or preserved as syrups, jams, fruit leathers, or juices. Grapes and other fruits are used for making wine and all kinds of liquors, although alcohol is currently illegal in Iran. Today the usual cooking oil all over the region is sunflower oil, though in Iran, local olive oil is now being used by some cooks. Grain in various forms sustains everyone, for rice is at the heart of many meals, especially in Iran and Kurdistan, and bread is always on the table. Dairy products play a big role: yogurt, which is used in soups and drinks; fresh cheeses; and the thick fermented sauce known in Persian as kashk. Like another shared tradition, grilling meat on skewers, these are probably a legacy of the nomadic peoples from central Asia who invaded Greater Persia over the centuries.

Isfahan, Iran—An Iranian couple in the courtyard of Hakim Mosque photographing the lovely tiling on the façade.

Country by Country

Everything I learned while working on this book confirmed the deep interconnectedness of areas within the Persian culinary region. At the same time, each of the cultures here is distinctive and has a very clear view of its own importance. Below are brief sketches of each one; for more detail, see A Closer Look.

Shiraz, Iran—Motorcycle trio near the shrine of Shah Chirag (see Mirrors and Patterned Light).


Iran is known as Persia in many books and writings (the country’s name was changed to Iran in 1935), and that is the term I use more often in this book. It’s a country of about eighty million people living in a territory about half the size of India. At the moment, the country is a theocracy, ruled by the head of the Twelver sect of Shia Islam, as well as by an elected parliament.

Geographically, Iran is a kind of keystone in West Asia. It’s not Arab, not Turkic, not South Asian, not European. It lies between the predominantly Arab and Turkish world of the Middle East and the countries of central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Russians and British sought to control it because of its strategic location and its oil.

Over its long history, Persia has often been a powerhouse, the center of an empire that conquered not just the Caucasus countries but also huge swaths of central Asia and the Middle East. As a result, it has had a huge cultural and culinary influence not just on its neighbors but also on Europe, North Africa, and India and Pakistan.

The majority population in Iran is Persian and speaks Persian (also called Farsi). There are also peoples of other cultures and ethnicities, including ethnic Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs. They are minority peoples in a country dominated by the descendants of Darius the Great and Xerxes.

Persians are proud of their cuisine, which is famous for its rice dishes, its subtle and seductive soups known as ash, the artful use of pomegranate molasses as a flavoring in dishes such as fesanjun, and its varied kebab repertoire. There’s much more to discover, a world of home-cooked dishes that have both freshness and depth of flavor, with an inspired use of mint (both fresh and dried), dill, tart barberries, saffron, and the dried limes known in Iran as limoo omani, and a lovely balancing of flavors. Among my favorite dishes are Persian borani, lightly cooked vegetables dressed with thick yogurt and topped with fried onions (see recipes here and here); all of the greens-and-beans-laden soups; and the sophisticated sweets.

Halabja, Kurdistan—Two Kurdish men wearing traditional clothing chat in the market.


Kurdistan is a small oil-rich region in northeastern Iraq, with an area a little smaller than that of Switzerland. It has a long border with Iran and also borders southeastern Turkey. Although the majority Kurdish population is Sunni Muslim and fairly conservative, modern Kurdistan is determinedly secular and officially tolerant of other religions. The Kurdish languages (three distinct Kurdish languages are spoken in Kurdistan) are all related to Persian, and the people of Kurdistan have close links with Iran. There is active trade (both legal and illegal) across the border, and in the 1970s and ’80s, many Kurds took refuge in Iran from Saddam Hussein’s attacks.

Iraqi Kurdistan is ridged with a series of hills and valleys that run north to south. Part of Kurdistan lies in the valley of the Tigris River, an area that was at the center of the Assyrian Empire until it was conquered by the Persians about 2,600 years ago. Some Assyrians still live here, in small villages as well as in and around the capital, Arbil. The Yazidis, much persecuted over the centuries, are another distinct minority group in Kurdistan.

The Kurds grow wheat and short-grain rice, as well as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Flatbreads are part of every meal, and rice is eaten twice a day in most households. Traditional Kurdish rice dishes are more like Mediterranean dishes such as risotto, and very unlike Persian rice. Herbs are served as part of the meal and also used (usually dried) as a seasoning. Like the Persians, Kurdish cooks include dried limes, the aromatic limes that they call limoo basrahi, in some of their stews. Glasses of liberally sugared tea punctuate the day, both at home and in public places.

Tatev, Armenia—A young mother and child were part of a family that invited me to join them as they snacked and drank tutovka.


Like Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia was a Soviet republic until the USSR split up in the early 1990s. The newly independent country of Armenia (Hayastan in Armenian) has a long and fascinating history. The early people of Armenia made wine and cultivated wheat and barley, and they left a treasure of early metalwork and other artifacts dating back to prehistoric times. Armenian is an Indo-European language that has had its own alphabet since the fifth century, when the country converted to Christianity from Zoroastrianism.

The smallest of the Caucasus countries, with a population of about three million, Armenia today is a remnant of what was once Greater Armenia, a kingdom whose territory extended across much of eastern and southern Turkey to the Mediterranean. That territory was at times controlled by the Persian Empire and eventually conquered by the Ottomans who ruled Turkey. Tens of thousands of Armenians living under Ottoman rule died during the genocide that began in 1915; the survivors fled the country. The Armenian diaspora includes large populations in North America, and there are also Armenians still living in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

The tough climate and the intermittently hard times Armenia has suffered have resulted in a remarkably creative cuisine, anchored by the need for frugality and self-sufficiency. The foods of present-day Armenia are quite unlike those of the western Armenians, who until the genocide had lived for centuries in what is now Turkey, and in Syria. Sunflower is the main oil rather than the olive oil of western Armenian cuisine, and is at the heart of everyday dishes based on vegetables, dried beans, and whole grains, subtly flavored with tart fruits and herbs. Because of the fasting traditions of the Armenian church, there’s a large repertoire of delectable meatless dishes, such as Cabbage Rolls Stuffed with Beans and Tart Fruit (see recipe), a boon for vegetarians.

Lahich, Azerbaijan—A horseman rides along a rocky streambed at the edge of the village.


Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country about the size of Austria, with a population of roughly nine and a half million. It’s bordered by the steep snowcapped Caucasus Mountains to the north, which define its frontier with Russia. South of the mountains the terrain is mostly fertile low-lying valleys. To the northwest is the Republic of Georgia, while to the east, Azerbaijan has a long coast on the Caspian Sea.

Today more Azeris live in neighboring Iran (where they constitute about 16 percent of the Iranian population) than in Azerbaijan. The whole Azeri-inhabited territory was ruled by Persia for many centuries, but it was divided between the USSR and Iran after a brief moment of independence from 1917 to 1920. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Azerbaijan has established itself as an independent country. Though most Azeris are Shia Muslim, Azerbaijan, which is ruled by an authoritarian regime, is determinedly secular. Azeri, a Turkic language that is laced with words of Persian origin, is the mother tongue of most people in Azerbaijan, many of whom also speak (and read) Russian.

As in Georgia, walnuts, pomegranates, grapes, plums, and sour plums are important ingredients. Azeri home cooks, like those in Georgia and Armenia, put up a gorgeous array of fruit juices and morabas (jams; see Apricot Moraba). Fresh cheese is part of most meals. There’s also a tradition of filled dumplings and dolmas (stuffed vegetables). And, as you might expect with a Turkic culture, grilled meat, poultry, and fish are much loved (see Turkey Kebabs).

Zaqatala, Azerbaijan—Public transport in rural Azerbaijan is mostly in tired, though charming, vans. Here, not far from the Georgian border, we stopped for a few more passengers.


A small country about the size of the Republic of Ireland, Georgia has a dramatically varied landscape, and a current population of less than four million. Like Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia was under Persian rule intermittently for centuries. But starting early in the nineteenth century, Russia fought Persia for the Caucasus countries, and it finally took complete control of them in 1828. Georgia had a moment of independence from 1918 to 1921, but then was forcibly incorporated into the USSR. When the Soviet Union broke up, Georgia regained its independence.

The early people of Georgia, like the Armenians and the early inhabitants of Azerbaijan, cultivated wheat, other grains, and legumes. These are still an important part of Georgian agriculture and cuisine, along with winemaking, fruit of all kinds, and shepherds’ cheeses. Georgians are famous for their cheese-filled breads, called khachapuri.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Georgian cooking is its use of utskho suneli, blue fenugreek. Together with ground coriander, it is the basis of the spice blend known as kmeli suneli (see recipe), which varies according to the cook’s taste. There’s more raw garlic in Georgian cuisine than elsewhere in the region, and fresh tarragon and coriander (cilantro) play a big role, along with tart fruits and walnuts. Among my favorite Georgian dishes are the walnut-based vegetable pâtés called pkhali (see recipe) and the tart fruit sauces, such as tkemali (Sour Plum Sauce).

Sheki, Azerbaijan—Plums of many kinds grow in the Caucasus, as do both sweet and tart pomegranates.

Flavors and Condiments

If you have a pantry set up with jars of dried herbs and spices and a few other flavorings, you can transform all kinds of foods into extraordinary dishes. This is what creative cooks in the Persian culinary region have been doing for centuries.

A few simple flavorings such as Mint Oil (see recipe) and Saffron Water (see recipe) can add a special touch to many dishes, not just those from the Persian repertoire. And there are also several recipes for spice blends and flavored salts here, which are all easy, so you can just put them together when you need them or make them ahead.

The region is rich in versatile sauces and condiments of all kinds, from Walnut Sauce (see recipe) and Sour Plum Sauce (see recipe) to Tart-Sweet Apricot and Raisin Relish (see recipe). Some are eaten fresh, while a few, notably the red and green Georgian pastes called ajika (see recipes here and here), can be made in large batches to be stored in your pantry. You’ll find other pantry-treasures in the fruits chapter.

Mint Oil

Nane Dagh

I now use mint oil to brighten all kinds of non-Persian dishes: lentil soups, vegetable soups and stews, and more. You can also drizzle it on salads or sliced cucumbers or chopped tomatoes, or add a swirl of it to lightly salted thick yogurt, to make a sauce for vegetables or grilled meats.

Dried mint is intense, and it keeps its flavor well. In the cuisines of the region, it’s not a second-best version of the fresh herb but a precious ingredient in its own right.

Makes about ¼ cup

¼ cup sunflower oil, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter-ghee

¼ cup dried mint

Place a small heavy saucepan over medium heat. When it is hot, add the oil or ghee and swirl to coat the pan, then toss in the dried mint, stir, and remove from the heat. Use immediately. Leftovers can be stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator but will lose aroma and flavor over time.

Yerevan, Armenia—Herbs and greens are plentiful from early spring until late autumn in markets all over the Persian world.

Pantry Basics

The dried herbs and spices listed below keep well stored in well-sealed containers in a cool place, and almost all are found in larger grocery stores. The exceptions, marked with an asterisk, are available in Persian, Arab, or Turkish grocery stores, or by mail order. Blue fenugreek is more difficult to get, so all the recipes include an alternative. For more information about any unfamiliar ingredients listed here, see Glossary.

Dried Herbs





Saffron threads

Dried marigold petals

Dried rose petals

Blue fenugreek*

Powdered dried fenugreek leaves*

Summer savory


Coriander seeds (whole and ground)

Ground cumin

Ground cassia (cinnamon)

Cardamom (whole seeds and ground)


Ground cloves

Ground sumac

Ground allspice

Nigella seeds*

Black peppercorns

Ground fenugreek

Powdered dried red chiles or cayenne

Other Useful Pantry Items

Sunflower oil (the most common cooking oil in the Persian culinary region; you can use a light-tasting extra-virgin olive oil instead)

Pomegranate molasses*

Dried limes*

Rose water

Dried apricots

Sour plums*

Dried barberries*

Tamarind pulp*

Tart fruit leather (homemade—see recipe—or store-bought*)

Verjuice or wine vinegar

Walnuts (store in the refrigerator)

Pistachios (store in the refrigerator)

Sesame seeds (store in the refrigerator)

Dried orange peel*

Kashk (fermented whey) in dried balls*

Small plate, clockwise from top: Saffron water, a dried red cayenne chile, sumac powder, a branch of rose hips.

Small blue bowl: Dried mint leaves.

Ivory bowl: Mint oil.

Large plate, clockwise from top: Turmeric powder, a spoon of saffron water, and, with it on the white plate, coriander seeds and dried marigold petals; cumin seeds; fenugreek seeds, dried fenugreek leaves and stems, and a bay leaf (in the small bowl); saffron threads; Svanetian Salt (see recipe; in the tiny bowl); tamarind pulp; and dried limes.

Herb Plate

Sabzi Khordan

Fresh herbs are a constant at many meals throughout the Persian culinary world. They’re put out in generous quantities on a plate, perhaps supplemented by pickled turnip or pickled peppers (especially in wintertime) and a little fresh cheese. The name for this herb plate in Persian is sabzi khordan, which literally means eating greens.

In summer, it’s easy to find fresh tarragon, chervil, parsley, watercress, chives, basil, mint, dill, and coriander. But these days large grocery stores are doing a good job of bringing in herbs even in the winter.

A list of the possibilities is below. There may be herbs you don’t love—just use one or two of those you do like; you don’t have to make it a huge affair. Wash the herbs well, trim off the coarsest stems, and serve as large sprigs. You can also put out radishes, chopped or whole, or pickles of various kinds—whatever you feel will give fresh crunch and flavor to the meal. Persian-style pickles (called torshi in Persian) are available in Persian, Turkish, and Arab groceries, and so are whole pickled peppers and pickled garlic. If you have a little fresh cheese or feta, you can serve that too, as another taste option. (Any leftover herbs can be stored in the refrigerator, sealed in ziplock bags.)

In Kurdistan, where people use pieces of supple flatbread as eating utensils, they’ll often put a fresh herb sprig or a scallion on the bread before using it to scoop up, say, some bean stew or simmered chicken. The combining of fresh with cooked, of crisp with soft, is a sensual, satisfying way to eat. And it gives diners the freedom to shape each mouthful as they wish.

Herbs and Greens

One or more: basil, coriander, mint, summer savory, parsley, scallions (halved lengthwise if large), fenugreek leaves, tarragon, watercress, dill, arugula, chervil, chives, and sorrel

Other Tastes and Textures (optional)

Radishes, cherry tomatoes or sliced tomatoes, sliced peeled cucumbers, pickles, fresh cheese, and/or walnuts

Put the ingredients of your choice out on a plate or in a wide shallow bowl to accompany any noontime or evening meal. I like to include fresh herbs in my breakfast too, but that’s not traditional.

Seeking Saffron

East of Mashad, Iran—On our way back from our saffron hunt, we stopped to chat with one of the older villagers here. He told us that the villagers were rug weavers, but sanctions had made dyes too expensive, and they had given up weaving.

I arrived in Mashad, in the far northeast of Iran, in late October. I’d read that the saffron harvest was in late October and November and I was hoping to see saffron crocuses, as the area around Mashad is Iran’s primary saffron growing region. With fingers crossed, I headed out of town on the hunt. I was with Hamid, the man who had arranged my visa. Though he’d grown up in Mashad, he knew nothing about saffron production, and he too was interested to find out more.

Hamid had been told that there were villages near Tus (birthplace and burial place of the revered Persian poet Ferdowsi) that are known for their saffron harvest. We drove past Tus, passing a small elegant stone tower built by the Mongols nearly eight hundred years ago, and out into a spare brown landscape. I was looking for fields of pale purple, or for signs of green leaves, but there were just bare fields edged with tree-lined water channels. We stopped at a baked earth–colored village to ask directions. A group of men and children was busy resealing the flat roof of their house in preparation for the rain and snow of winter.

They shook their heads: We were too early. There would be no flowers for another five or six days. They suggested that we head farther south, where the harvest always starts sooner.

We drove on, taking a road that parallels the Afghan border some fifty miles to the east. The countryside was vast and open, rolling green hills and sheep pastures in all directions, broken up by a few red-brown rocky outcrops. Small villages of stone and brick occasionally appeared, nestled into hillsides far from the road. I could imagine the Mongols sweeping in from the east, and later Tamerlane with his army, bent on conquest and destruction, with no trees or fences to get in their way.

After a while, we came to a scenic village and stopped to ask once again about saffron. Oh yes, I just picked mine, but if you go over to that red house, said the man we asked, there should be flowers nearby. There was no greenery visible, no color at all, at first glance. But when I looked more closely at the bare dirt in the small field, I could see, here and there, a tender beautiful purple bloom, and in the center of each, sticking up taller than the petals, three distinctive deep-orange stigmas.

Aha! The holy grail in all its fragility and loveliness. Seeking out and admiring flowers one by one, rather than finding fields full of them, was an unexpected end to my quest. It also felt very right that the precious saffron should be elusive.

The owner appeared. We explained that we were on the hunt for saffron. He told us that saffron needs cold weather to bloom and that the bulbs will yield a crop for seven years. Harvest is first thing in the morning, but some farmers also come by to pick flowers again in late afternoon, as he was doing.

The flowers sell for the equivalent of five dollars per kilo and buyers employ village women to pluck the stigmas. They accumulate slowly, three by three, as the pluckers work. No wonder saffron is expensive.

Why bother? I used to wonder. The answer is culinary and cultural. Even in small quantities, saffron gives fragrance and flavor to rice and other dishes. And saffron is also a sign of generosity. All the effort and expense involved in saffron production means that adding saffron to a dish makes it special.

I also wonder why and how the passion for saffron first developed. Perhaps it goes back to the reverence for and worship of the sun in Zoroastrian and animist times (see Zoroaster’s Legacy). The golden tint of saffron perhaps became precious because of its association with the divine.

Northeastern Iran, southeast of Mashad—A saffron crocus in bloom with its three dark-orange stigmas.

Saffron Water

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What people think about Taste of Persia

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  • (5/5)
    A wonderful jewel of a cookery book!The author's descriptions of the country and the ingredients used in the dishes she makes are mouthwatering to say the least.Very highly recommended.I was given a digital copy of this book by the publisher Artisan via Netgalley in return for an honest unbiased review.
  • (4/5)
    Food of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan.
    Introduction: Includes maps and a section entitled "cuisines without borders." Also a glossary (which includes food) and annotated bibliography. There is so much history and culture spread throughout this book and within the recipes. It's a delight to read.
    Photos: Gorgeous. Photos of locales, foods, and finished recipes.
    Recipes: Easy to follow, with alternative cooking methods mentioned.
  • (3/5)
    Ms Duguid's starting point for this book is the Persian kingdom of Darius the Great and his father Cyrus 486 BCE. She contends that the 5 countries of the book's focus (and Kurdisan isn't a country yet, BTW) are tied together not by any cultural or linguistic features but by Persian influenced food. Well, I am writing this today from Erbil (Arbil, Irbil,Hewler), capital of the devolved Kurdish Region of Iraq that may someday become Kurdistan, and I think that Ms Duguid is reaching too far, in particular by downplaying the eastward and westward sweeps of culture as Persia was subsequently conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the rise of the Armenian Empire that reached its peak in 69 BCE, the more recent Ottoman Empire that reached its peak in 1683, and the Soviet Union that absorbed Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia in the 20th century. I have worked and eaten my way across this region (and studied a couple of the languages) and I do not see the Persian link she sees. As a matter of fact, I am astonished sometimes by the differences in everyday foods across some of these borders – for example, the dumpling line, which seems to stretch along western Iran. East of the line steamed or boiled veg and non-veg dumplings (manti, vereniki, pelmeni) are common, here in Kurdistan and onward west to ravioli country they are not to be found. Certainly the people of the region do not see a Persian link in their foodways. Climate, topography, agriculture, and trade have been far more important.The resulting book is a hodgepodge of recipes (some of which are quite important within their cultural context) and quite a lot of descriptive text that tries to forge a coherent story of really quite disparate cuisines.I received a review copy of "Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan" by Naomi Duguid (Artisan) through NetGalley.com.